Medical travel was put on hold for much of this year as the coronavirus outbreak swept through the globe, forcing countries to shut down borders and restrict travel. In the heat of the pandemic, healthcare institutions, including top medical travel destinations, cut back on treatments they offered, suspending elective procedures and channeling healthcare resources to combat the infection. Now, as travel is slowly returning to normal, medical travelers have new expectations from a medical tourist destination - these patients now not only seek quality and affordability of medical care but also a medical travel destination that has put in place adequate measures to safeguard their health, given the COVID-19 pandemic.
Given that the pandemic has increased the focus on safety, in addition to healthcare quality, it is important for healthcare providers to ensure they have implemented protocols that mitigate the risk of COVID-19 infection during travel and all touch points before, during and after treatment.
In July of this year, the Global Healthcare Accreditation (GHA) released the GHA Covid-19 Guidelines for Medical Travel Programs that help guide programs in mitigating the risks of COVID-19 for traveling patients. In response to requests from programs seeking external validation with the Guidelines, GHA released a Certification of Conformance with GHA COVID-19 Guidelines for Medical Travel Programs that demonstrates to healthcare stakeholders such as patients and other payers, that a medical tourism program complies with international best practices to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission at all patient touch-points including travel to and from the destination.
The GHA guidelines are based on Version 4.1 of the Global Healthcare Accreditation Standards for Medical Travel Programs, which were approved by the International Society for Quality in Healthcare (ISQua) and other internationally recognized authorities.
With the COVID-19 Certification of Conformance, GHA assesses risk mitigation strategies of the medical travel care continuum, from pre-arrival procedures, airport and flight COVID-19 protocols, to accommodation, transport, and medical treatment within the medical tourist destination. The Certification of Conformance also includes a two-hour online training available to staff of a healthcare facility, especially those involved in the medical travel program. The online training walks staff of hospitals and clinics through each stage of the medical travel care continuum, from service selection and information sharing to follow up at home after treatment and reviews Guidelines for mitigating COVID-19 infection risks.
COVID-19 Certification of Conformance offers third-party validation of a medical travel program’s framework and protocol for curbing COVID-19 transmission, facilitating confidence, and boosting trust for healthcare buyers and other stakeholders. The certification also communicates to prospective international patients about the specific safety protocols, including COVID-19 testing, personal protective equipment (PPE) for patients and healthcare workers, and visitor/companion guidelines.
According to Karen Timmons, Chief Executive Officer, Global Healthcare Accreditation (GHA), "The COVID-19 Certification of Conformance helps increase patient trust and confidence in an organization by demonstrating that a medical travel program has implemented operational protocols, practices, and procedures that have undergone an external review and reflect international best practices designed to keep traveling patients safe."
The certification also highlights telehealth services as a tool that medical tourism organizations might integrate into their programs to limit contact and lower COVID-19 risk, such as prescreening, testing, and post-discharge monitoring of patients.
Before the pandemic, healthcare buyers were often slow to reimburse for virtual consultations, and the demand for telehealth was low. With global travel restrictions, the demand for telehealth solutions has surged, and regulatory barriers have been adjusted in certain countries to make virtual care easier for patients to access. Telehealth services are poised to grow exponentially over the coming years, allowing hospitals and healthcare facilities to implement telehealth solutions with the potential to increase medical travel volume in a post-pandemic world.
In August, Thailand’s Bumrungrad International Hospital became the first hospital in the world to receive the GHA’s Certification of Conformance with COVID-19 Guidelines. One of the key players in medical travel globally, Bumrungrad International Hospital provided care for over 1.1 million patients annually pre COVID, half of which were international patients. However, the global travel restrictions and quarantines caused by the pandemic led to a decline in medical travel patient volume, as was the case with many other medical travel programs. The hospital invested in other services for local Thai patients during the lockdown as well as assuring a “safe” hotel during quarantine, including improving its COVID-19 safety protocols in line with GHA’s guidelines.
Other healthcare facilities such as Prince Sultan Cardiac Center Al Hassa in Saudi Arabia, and several facilities in Thailand including Ratchaphruek Hospital in northeastern Thailand, Bangkok Smile Dental Clinic, Princ Suvarnabhumi Hospital, Praram 9 Hospital, Aek Udon International Hospital and Phyathai 1 Hospital have also received the GHA’s Certification. This certification, which is valid for three years with annual reviews, has d served as a tool to build patient trust as medical travel programs reopen or increase operations.
Founded in 2016, the Global Healthcare Accreditation for Medical Travel Services is the only accrediting body focused solely on medical travel services. GHA’s international standards and professional norms for medical travel were developed in consultation with leading global experts in the industry, including providers, insurers and employers committed to establish best practices in medical tourism and health tourism, which support healthcare providers in validating quality and patient experience, increasing visibility, and implementing a sustainable business model for providers along the entire medical travel care continuum. GHA received ISQua’s International Society for Quality in Health Care External Evaluation Association (IEEA) accreditation in 2019.
The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the value of implementing standards or best practices to mitigate COVID-19 infection risks for patients during travel and treatment. The heightened health awareness has pushed more and more patients to increase their expectations and demand healthcare delivery that is not only of high quality but also safe. As the COVID-19-induced travel restrictions ease across the world, it is incumbent on healthcare providers to implement protocols that mitigate the risks of COVID-19 or other infectious agents along the entire medical tourism patient journey, and communicate these to patients to build trust. This new metric serves as a pointer for prospective patients to identify medical tourism programs that prioritize the quality and safety of care in light of the pandemic and to prepare for future pandemics.